Veni, Vidi, Viticulture

I'm a huge fan of wine. It's my alcoholic beverage of choice and I've spent many many weekends driving around the vineyards of Napa Valley. I also own a home in Napa, so, yeah, I like wine. This immediately put Viticulture on the radar for me. After all, I bought Vinhos, a super complex, super lengthy game for which I haven't even read the rules (after months) almost purely because of the premise.

I must admit, however, that Vinhos, Viticulture, and Viva Java have now made it very difficult for me to design a game about two of my favorite things: wine and coffee. I guess I'll go back to war and Theodore Roosevelt.

When Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of Viticulture, approached me, I immediately knew I wanted to interview him. Read on to learn more about the game and its development!

HG: Introduce yourself. Who is Jamey Stegmaier?

JS: Indeed, who IS Jamey Stegmaier? I grew up in Virginia, designing and playing games in my free time, and I’ve lived in St. Louis for the last 13 years. I discovered Euro games about 8 years ago, which re-ignited my passion for game design. I have a pretty normal day job (I work at a non-profit), I co-founded a fiction publishing company a few years ago (my other passion is writing/publishing), I play soccer, and I have two cats. I’m also single, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with the cats.

HG: Tell us about Viticulture? At a high level, what do we need to know?

JS: In Viticulture, each player takes the role of a vineyard owner trying to create the top winery in Tuscany. It’s a 2-6 player worker-placement game that takes between 45-90 minutes to play (once you know how to play, games last just over an hour).

HG: Why did you pick the theme of wine making? 

JS: Two main reasons: One, the idea of owning a winery is highly romanticized. There’s something about bottling the fruits of the earth into a concoction of your own design that appeals to people, and I wanted to tap into that. Two, I wanted to create a game that could appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.

I probably could have made a similar version of Viticulture with wizards, potions, and elixirs, but I would have excluded a huge number of people—many of whom probably have never tried a Euro-style game—who I think could really enjoy something that’s a little different than the standard fare you find in the average game closet.

HG: I own a home in Napa, so I'm partial to American varietals and wine growers. Why Tuscany? There are wine regions all over the world (Vinhos simulates the region in Portugal) and I'm curious as to why Tuscany was your top pick.

JS: I wish I could say that I have strong roots to the region, but really, it came down to Bordeaux and Tuscany, and Tuscany seemed slightly more romanticized than Bordeaux. Apologies to all of my French friends. It was very close.

HG: You advertise that your game loses some of the "cutthroatedness." Why did you want this approach? How did you accomplish it?

JS: It really comes down to this: Despite our best hopes and intentions, we’ve all done something out of spite instead of reason in a game, and we’ve all had this done to us. It sucks, but it’s true. I think it’s a game designer’s responsibility to mitigate that potential for hostility in a game.

I accomplish that goal in Viticulture by simply not making such hostility possible. Each player has complete control over his/her vineyard mat—no one else can affect it at all. None of the cards in the game are attack cards. The only areas of conflict are the wake-up chart (determining player order) and choosing worker-selection actions, but we included a rule that says that if you can’t take an action (i.e., if you don’t have enough money to build a structure), you can’t select that action. Thus you can’t intentionally block someone simply to block them.

HG: Your game doesn't feature dice and advertises low luck. Why was this important to you? How do you keep the game entertaining after multiple plays? Where's the replayability factor? I have a war game in development that features no dice and one of the first things I had to resolve was preserving variability and replayability within this constraint.

JS: This is a great question, one that I pondered time after time during the development of the game (well, the second question. To the first question: I like choice more than I like luck when it comes to strategy games). In early versions of the game, there were only two options for variability and luck: vine cards and wine order cards. And it kept bugging me because it didn’t feel like there was enough variation.

But then we had a breakthrough: The visitor cards. In the game, players can invite skilled visitors to their vineyards in the summer and winter. Each of the 40 visitor cards is unique and offers bonuses that exceed the actions on the board (or they give you new ways to gain money or victory points). There is a little bit of luck in the draw, but they’re all good at different times.

Beyond that, every game—even every year within the game—feels different because of the order that everyone places workers and the different priorities of the players depending on the options available and their cards in hand. It’s not a game in which you can use the same strategy every time—you have to be nimble and flexible recognizing opportunities and capitalizing on them.

HG: 2-6 is a wide range of players! I often start at 2-5 and quickly go back to 2-4. What changes do you introduce to make the game scale? How difficult was this part of your design?

JS: That specific range was really important to me. The lower end of the range is obvious—when you’re trying to play a game, it’s the easiest to try to find one other player. Plus, I wanted a game that couples would enjoy playing. As for the upper end of the range, I wanted a game that 3 couples (or 2 couples, me, and a date who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into) can play.

The scaling is key, though. Usually when you add extra players, the game takes much longer, and the flow is interrupted. Conversely, lots of games that are built for 3-4 players have a 2-player mode that feels quite different from a “normal” game because you have to add a ghost player or have each player play with two sets of pieces. I wanted to avoid both of those issues.

The solution that I discovered and honed is that the number of spaces available for each action scale depending on the number of players—1 space for 2 players, 2 spaces for 3-4 players, and 3 spaces for 5-6 players. It works remarkably well. There are always good options for you to choose, but you’re always left wanting as well. I know I’m enjoying a game when I always want a little more of everything.

HG: Many people see worker placement as something that's overdone. I see people say this about every genre. Nonetheless, what steps did you take to ensure Viticulture is unique?

JS: Perhaps it’s just that I love the mechanic, or maybe it just makes sense to me. When you manage people in real life, you’re assigning different responsibilities to them. That translates really well to games for me (and it goes back to the power of choice instead of luck—as much as I love Dominion, what is the real-life equivalent to drawing 5 cards from your deck every turn? It works as a mechanic, but not as a translation of real life).

The answer to this question includes pretty much every facet of the game, so this video I recently created should help.

HG: Who is your ideal player for Viticulture? Who would LOVE this game?

JS: I think the ideal player is someone who fancies the idea of a vineyard in a box. They could be a gamer who will dive deep into the strategy of the game or a non-gamer who is dipping their toes into the world of strategy games. Either way, I think they’ll enjoy the game.

HG: What were some of the biggest problems you had to solve in developing Viticulture?

JS: I’ve playtested the game countless times over the past year and solved (hopefully) countless problems, so let me focus on one in particular. From very early on, the game was played in seasons, and one of the ways I separated the seasons was by a role of a specific die for that season. The die included 2 good things connected with that season that affected all players, or 2 bad things (drought, frost, etc) that affected all players.

The trouble was that the randomness provided by these dice caused way too much unpredictability in terms of tactics and strategy. You couldn’t plan ahead—or you could try, and it wouldn’t matter after the die was rolled—and it frustrated everyone. Even though seasonal unpredictability is realistic when running a vineyard, it simply doesn’t translate to smooth gameplay, so I removed the dice after a few months of testing.

HG: What games inspired you in designing Viticulture

JS: The big ones are Agricola, Fresco, and Stone Age. All three were a revelation when I played them. Viticulture uses a few of my favorite aspects from each of those games, fixes my least favorite aspects from them, and adds a lot of new stuff as well.

HG: Your KS campaign has some interesting marketing tactics. For example, getting additional likes, counting backers, not just money. How do you think this has worked so far? I must admit, I'm asking because I may want to steal these ideas.

JS: Steal away! The reaction to the Like-based stretch goals was mixed. My intention was to give people a way to support the project even if they didn’t want to spend money. However, the criticism I heard from a few people was that I was conning people into Liking something that they didn’t actually like. That wasn’t my intention, obviously, but that was the perception of a few people. That said, I’d do it again. I mean, even if someone only likes the video or the idea of the project, isn’t that worth contributing (and rewarding)? Plus, I like having stretch goals that can happen before you reach your funding goal. When you start out with $0, everything is a stretch. Last, my research of a bunch of similar games that had been successful on Kickstarter revealed that the average number of Likes between them was 519. So I figured that would be my goal. As of this writing, we’re at 444 Likes, and we’re also 124% funded.

HG: Do you see Viticulture as a one off, or do you hope to have more games? If the latter, what are some interesting areas you think should be explored?

JS: Oh, Stonemaier Games is far from done after this, my friend. If we have any profits after this campaign, we’re going to revert the money to our next game (and/or Viticulture expansions). Alan (the co-creator of Viticulture) has a concept he’s been brainstorming for over a year that we’re excited about. As for me, I have lots of mechanics I want to work with, but I haven’t settled on a theme. That’s usually how it starts for me—mechanics before theme. Is that how it is for you?

HG: I'm a bit of a combination of theme and mechanics. I love history. Love it. I obsess over it. Typically, I think of a historical setting or premise or event. I then immediately begin to design it so that I abstract that premise into a game. I suppose you could argue I start theme first, but I tend to focus on settings that allow for neat mechanics. Everything in Farmageddon is inspired by an actual farming habit or reality.

For example, with Empire of York I was fascinated with the heavy attrition of 19th century combat and how brilliant commanders found ways to win decisively despite the limitations of weaponry. I looked to the Franco-Prussian War and how the Germans won largely because they captured entire French armies (much like they would do again during the World War II blitz). As a result, some of my game's first mechanics were tactics like encirclement or bombardment, favorites of the Prussians and Bonaparte, respectively.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Thanks so much for the opportunity, Grant. I really enjoyed these questions, and I look forward to hearing what your readers think. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments here or on our Facebook page, or people can e-mail me directly at jamey.stegmaier@gmail.com. Thanks for your support for Viticulture!